Society for Crypto Judaic Studies
By Arthur Benveniste and Anne Treseder
from HaLapid, Winter 2008
In 1962 Judy Frankel attended a Theodore Bikel concert in Cambridge , Mass. Bikel sang a song in Spanish, but, as Judy recalls, “It didn't sound like Spanish.” After the concert she asked Bikel about the song. He told her that it was in Ladino. The song was “Los Bilbilikos” (The Nightingales). This was her introduction to the music of the Spanish Jews.
She researched the Ladino language and music in libraries and archives in the Boston area. Soon she found more songs which she added to her repertoire.
Judy has been a singer all her life. She has been a soloist with the San Francisco Consort, a chamber ensemble dedicated to researching and performing Medieval and Renaissance music. She studied at the Longy School of Music and Harvard University in Cambridge , the Berklee School of Music and Boston University , and with Dorio Dwyer of the Boston Symphony. She has had master classes with Music For Awhile of N.Y., Andrea von Ram of Basil, and Emma Kirkby and the Hilliard Ensemble of London. She has concertized with the Handel and Haydn Choral Society of Boston, UC Berkeley Collegium Musicum and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. Ms. Frankel has sung with the Golden Goose Madrigal Quartet, and has been the soloist for the St. Helena Ensemble and the San Francisco Consort.
But folk music has been a special interest of hers. This interest led her to Jerusalem in search of "old" Jewish music.
After moving to San Francisco she visited Mt. Zion Hospital to entertain sick and elderly patients with Jewish folk songs. One patient, Rachel Hazan, was amazed that Judy could sing in Ladino. She said she hadn't heard the music sung since she was young. Judy met Mrs. Hazan's grown children, who helped Judy with more Ladino music and words. She went to an old folks' home in Seattle and found more elderly Ladino-speakers to teach her. In the SF Bay Area, she met Rachel Amado Bortnick and Selma Levi, who taught her other songs. They also introduced her to other Ladino speakers. She continued to gather songs. In 1984, she visited the Diaspora Museum library in Israel for more research.
Judy says that she identifies with the sad songs in Ladino-"with gorgeous melodies, and usually [seemingly] written by women." She wants "to carry on this precious legacy that has survived for 500 years."
In 1989, after learning about a secret Jewish community in Portugal , she traveled to Belmonte. A visit she has described in an earlier issue of HaLapid. During that same trip, while in Madrid , she met Stan Hordes who was there doing research. She learned from him about the crypto-Jews of New Mexico . He invited her to do a concert in Santa Fe that same year. She was amazed that 500 people attended the concert, many of them crypto-Jews or others learning of their heritage.
She returned to Belmonte , Portugal in 1995 as part of a tour of Jewish sites in Portugal in honor of the late Portuguese Righteous Gentile Aristides de Sousa Mendes, himself descended from Jews forced to convert to Catholicism. She gave a concert there in Lisbon in front of the Portuguese President and his wife, and many other dignitaries. She also sang at the cemetery where Sousa Mendes was buried in Cabanas de Viriato, Portugal , Sousa Mendes' home.
Judy became an active and valued member of SCJS almost from its beginning. She has attended many of our conferences and has been our featured entertainer several times, most recently at our 2004 conference in Portland , Oregon .
On a personal note: I (Arthur Benveniste) grew up in a Ladino speaking community. I remember my aunts and the other women of our community singing old songs in an odd Spanish dialect. As a foolish youngster, I pretty much ignored them. I was embarrassed that they spoke English with an accent and I wasn't interested in their old fashioned-out dated music. As I grew older and I saw that the native Ladino speakers were disappearing and the culture was going with them, I realized what a treasure I was losing.
Then I heard Judy sing. I shall always be indebted to her for preserving that which I almost lost.
Anne Treseder is a San Francisco attorney, who has written about Portugal and Cabo Verde for various publications. She first began to explore the subject of the "hidden" Jews in Portugal when she met Carlos de Sousa Mendes (grandson of Aristides de Sousa Mendes) in 1985, and learned of the family's Jewish roots. Arthur Benveniste is co-editor of HaLapid and is former SCJS president .
We are sorry to report that our good friend Judy Frankel passed away on March 20, 2008